Issobell Young

Issobell Young was a witch. Everybody around the farms of East Barns and Dunbar parish knew that. She was also, as she got older, a forceful, ‘hands on’ character, used to getting her own way and expecting servants, outdoor staff and ‘tradesmen’ to do as she bid. Not satisfied with her family’s position and relative wealth, she used all she could think of to ensure the family prosperity. Eventually, a part of the community got fed up with her.

Issobell (Isobel, in modern spelling) was born in the middle of the 16th century. She made a good marriage, becoming the wife of George Smith, a portioner of East Barns. The portioners were a bit of an elite in the parish of Dunbar: they had a ‘feu’ or heritable landholding – they could sell or buy the land but only with the permission of their feudal superior, to whom they also owed an annual ‘feu duty’, a payment in cash or kind. This put them at a level well above cottars (who leased a bit of land on a short tenure) and farm servants, who were employed to work the land. The estates of East and West Barns, lying to either side of Dunbar, were parts of feudal lordships that had anciently been part of the earldom of Dunbar but their husbandry had been devolved to local families. Anyway, Isobel’s husband was one of a dozen or so farmers who each owned one or two of the ‘sixteenths’ into which East Barns was divided. Isobel and George had at least four sons (and an unknown number of daughters). By 1629 three of the boys were married with families of their own. One had become a portioner in his own right and could also expect to inherit his father’s land so the family was advancing economically. And this may be the root of the trouble.

Isobel’s first recorded brush with the authorities came well before the eventual crisis. She was denounced as a witch at an earlier period, but was presumably able to avoid charges. But she had gained a reputation and as the authorities became more zealous against presumed witches, that was a two-edged sword. Evidence led at her trial in 1629 brought forward the former charges (and added more) to establish that she had long associated with known witches – as far back as 1591 (Catherine Gray, executed April 1591) and that:

the accused has had an evil reputation for witchcraft for the past 40 years

the past 20 years

36 years reputed

You get the picture. Evidence from other witnesses exhibits commonsense:

(she) saw her as nothing but a virtuous, careful and honest woman, although the gossip of the countryside said otherwise against her, amongst those that did not like her.

and while this obviously had an effect on the jurors, it wasn’t enough to counter the charges. There were 24 individual charges on her indictment, covering events of most of the previous 40 years (there was a notable lack of exactitude in the dates given by witnesses – and a notable emphasis on cause and effect with little regard to timings of the two). The charges can be grouped, in that several charges relate to associated sequences of events.

One sequence began with Isobel queue-jumping at a mill. The calamities that then befell the miller over the next few years were all laid at Isobel’s door: the mill stopped working, he lost his position, he was unsuccessful at the herring fishing which he then took up (until he sought Isobel’s forgiveness). All witchcraft. The defence was led by Isobel’s three surviving sons and two eminent Edinburgh lawyers. They demonstrated reasonably that an accidentally broken mill takes time to fix, that the miller had a reputation for laziness and his tack was taken over by a more active worker, that a newcomer to the fishing couldn’t expect the success of life-long experts…. and so on. To no avail.

Another began with the Smiths being frustrated and outbid in a land deal. Isobel threatened the winners (neighbour to Isobel and George) saying:

that he would never again have so much money to lay out on land

and so it came to pass. The neighbours lost 16 cattle and 8 horses to disease – and a sheep that broke into Isobel’s grain field and had to be driven out broke its neck another day! Guilty – convicted by a majority!

Another neighbour scooped the Smiths over yet another piece of land, but died soon after. Isobel could not resist

bragging and boasting that nobody could thrive or get on if they meddled with anything you had an eye on or a desire for, as the results of doing so were apparent with (the victims).

Convicted by a majority, again. And so it went on. Petty arguments were picked over and jumps in cause and effect were made. A woman who more than 38 years before felt poorly and went to consult the witch Catherine Gray for a cure found her in the company of Isobel. Well, that meant that Isobel too was

a witch and a consulter with witches for curing sickness and disease by sorcery, witchcraft, and other unlawful and godless methods

This last was too much for the jury: acquitted. But the weight of the charges grew as more and more evidence was led and witnesses confirmed their statements. Reading closely, it’s clear that many of these witnesses were in a bind. They had to affirm their witness statements (otherwise they had committed perjury) but perhaps they never imagined that they’d have to stand in court in Edinburgh and before the Lord Advocate to do so. There were lots of qualifying statements at the end of their evidence:

being sworn and questioned about the 12th article, he knows no more than that it was reported to be true

she has reputed to have been a witch for the past thirtysix years, but he knows nothing specific about her

As for the losses sustained by him as described in the indictment, this is true, but she was not the cause of them. He accepts them from God for his sins.

…he will not take it upon his soul that Issobell Young was the cause…

The impression is that Isobel’s attitude, character and disagreeableness festered with the community until it was felt she had to be given a fright. And then it all went too far when the wheels of the justice system began to turn. But it was too late for doubts.

The jury deliberated, rejected half the charges, declared guilt on the rest – usually by a majority and sometimes a bare one at that. Then the judge decreed her fate: to be taken to the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, strangled at a stake until dead, and her body burned to ashes. Her moveable goods were forfeit. Sentence was quickly carried out – no appeal.


40 years later another witch was brought to trial in Dunbar. On the board of the court sat one James Smith, merchant and burgess of Dunbar; on the jury sat one James Smith of East Barns. One or both of these men were surely descendants of Isobel! And although evidence was led against the presumed witch this time there’s no evidence of any sentence. Perhaps memories lingered and common sense this time was allowed to prevail.

The quotations on this page are from Goodnight my servants all by David Robertson. This and more can be consulted at the John Gray Centre.

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